Teach & Serve No. 34 – Good and Great; Life and Death

Teach & Serve 

No. 34 * April 6, 2016

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Good and Great; Life and Death

Good Schools often have good facilities, good teachers, good kids, good grades, good enrollment, good, good, good… what they don’t have is life.


Since the first day a grizzled, experienced and very, very veteran high school administrator shared with me his Good School/Great School Paradigm I have been fascinated by it, taken with it and convinced of its pure truth. Pulling me aside during an accreditation visit on which we were both visiting team members, this wise administrator for whom I didn’t work told me he believed that Good Schools are destined to remain Good Schools because they think they are great. He said that Great Schools are great because they ask themselves: “what can we do to be better?”

I am in love with this conclusion and I think it is absolutely spot on. The idea that Great Schools are consistently, constantly and consciously about improvement, about getting better, about changing is such a challenging, life renewing and exciting concept. I imagine Great Schools that passionately posit hard questions. I imagine Great Schools that redefine themselves as a matter of course. I imagine Great Schools that encourage creative dissent.

I imagine because I have to.

I worked in high schools for almost 25 years, man and boy, and that doesn’t count my degree work as an undergrad – those hours upon hours of observations – nor does it count my full time student teaching. It does count the five schools in which I’ve spent significant time. And, in all those years and all of that time, I can say that I can point to moments where I saw potential for greatness at the places where I worked, but it was rarely sustained.

Here’s the problem with being Great. It takes work. It takes bravery. It takes consistent drive from leadership that isn’t afraid to have questions asked – and answered – about the health and life of the school.

Great requires energy and dynamism.

No school sets out to be Good. Likewise no school sets out to be lifeless. Rather, leadership build staffs primarily upon very good hires. Leadership institutes solid programs fostering good curriculum, good teaching and good discipline. Markers of success (enrollment, retention, standardized test scores, etc.) are met. The conclusion, then, is this all works. We know what we’re doing. Why change? And then ways of doing things become locked in because we’ve had success doing things this way and, really, isn’t this the way we’ve always done things? Shouldn’t we keep doing them this way? Why mess with success? Good hires become tenured. Good hires become tired. Good hires become mediocre when they are not challenged. Leadership becomes insular when it isn’t pressed. Energy wanes.

Good Schools are like the teacher you had when you were in high school. While she was engaging and energetic when you were in her classroom 15 or 20 years ago, she’s still doing the exact same things and still being praised for doing so. “Everyone loves her class!” people say. “She really knows her stuff!” people rave. But is anyone asking why she’s still using the overheads she made during her first year of teaching instead of her digital projector? Is anyone asking why she hasn’t gone to any significant professional development in years? Is anyone asking why she insists on keeping the traditional text she’s always used instead of moving to an electronic one?

No. She’s good. She’s all good.

Good Schools are like that and unless they start missing those markers of success, what is the motivation to change?

Good Schools often have good facilities, good teachers, good kids, good grades, good enrollment, good, good, good… what they don’t have is life.

desertGood Schools don’t change. They don’t want to. Because they don’t change, they are locked into what they are, locked into what they do, locked in. They are stuck in a place and a time and cannot even see the rest of the world passing them by because, of course, they are good. How do they know? They’ve told themselves they are. They’ve convinced themselves (because they have the high numbers and the nice facilities and the good kids and the credentialed teachers) that they are great.

But they are not great. They are dead and they don’t look to come back to life.

And they can stay dead and stagnant for a very, very long time. They can – and will – stay dead and stagnant until they are forced to change. They will actively protect their stagnation because their leadership has let them down. Their leadership has discouraged hard questions, resisted redefinition, and shut out creative dissent.

They are Good. And they are dead. Until there is a sea change, they will never, ever be Great.

I wish that I could say I’ve encountered as many Great Schools as Good Schools. I wish I could say that most of the Good Schools I’ve seen have found their way out of the desert and are on their way to becoming Great Schools.

But I cannot say that. I believe there are many, many Good Schools but there are few Great ones.

“Good Schools think they’re great. Great Schools ask ‘what can we do to be better?’”

What can we do, indeed?



Filed under Education, Education Blog, Ignatian Education, Jesuit Education, Teach & Serve, Teacher, Teacher Blog, Teaching, Teaching Blog

4 responses to “Teach & Serve No. 34 – Good and Great; Life and Death

  1. Pingback: Teach & Serve No. 35 – We Should Be Aware of Confidentiality, But Not in the Way One Might Think | And There Came a Day...

  2. Pingback: Teach & Serve No. 36 – Do I Engage the Mission Every Day? | And There Came a Day...

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